The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence
A topical, deeply thoughtful, and wonderfully written love letter to books, to libraries, to the power of storytelling, to fantasy, and to epigrams, The Book That Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence will be appearing on my best of 2023 list at the end of this year. That’s not to say it’s perfect. After all, I now have to wait for book two in this new series. And, well, I don’t wanna wait. Me want. Me want now.
At nearly 600 pages, there’s a lot of action/plot here, and some of that encompasses a few twists and turns and reveals, so to streamline things and also avoid major spoilers, here’s a very simplified summary. The book follows two points-of-view: Livira and Evar. We meet Livira as a young girl living in an inhospitable desert several days from the major city of Crath. When her small village is overrun by “Sabbers” (canine-like humanoids at war with humans), she ends up in Crath first as a refugee and then as a trainee at the Library. If you’re wondering why it’s capitalized, think of it as a Borges-style library of unimaginable vastness. The Library is one of the most wondrously creative and fascinating elements of The Book That Wouldn’t Burn across its mythos, its physical structure and rules, and its application/purpose, but I don’t want to spoil the joy of meeting it so that’s all I’ll say about it. We follow Livira as she gradually moves up in rank and learns more of the Library’s secrets, as she also becomes more entangled in city politics and the war between the humans and the Sabbers.
The other point of view belongs to Evar, a young man who has been trapped for years in a chamber of the Library alongside his four “siblings” (they’re not actually related). All five of them had, at different points in time, been swallowed by the Mechanism, a Library machine that is sort of an uber-VR device that puts you “into” a book. Each of the five siblings were eventually “spit out” of the Mechanism all at the same time, after having spent roughly a decade of their life (though they haven’t aged) in the single book they entered the machine with. Thus, all of them exited as an expert in some skill associated with their book: psychology, spy craft, history, and fighting. Only Evar emerged with no skill, just a sense he’d lost someone important. While Livira moves up in the Library ranks, Evar tries to escape his imprisonment in the distant Library chamber and find the person he feels he lost. Eventually the two cross paths, and Livira decides to help Evar in his quest.
As mentioned, that’s a brutally streamlined synopsis. Lawrence has woven a complex narrative tapestry here, and it’s all tightly plotted, masterfully aligned, and fantastically paced despite the many threads he’s employing. While some of the places those threads lead to might be seen in advance, any correct prediction of events in no way lessens the plot’s pleasures or the impact of the powerfully emotional moments. The action meanwhile quickens at a relentlessly breathless rate by the latter part of the book so that the 550-plus pages fly by in what feels like half that length. I read it in three long sittings that would have happily been two if we hadn’t been entertaining an out-of-town guest.
Beyond its utterly fascinating setting and compelling plot, the two main characters are captivatingly engaging narrators. Our introduction to Livira comes first via the etymology of her name, which is a type of weed, and then in a fight against a far larger and older opponent who doesn’t want to hurt her but doesn’t know what to do when “she won’t stay down.” Those qualities — the ability to thrive despite an inhospitable environment and sheer determination to get up when she’s knocked down— along with her third “superpower” of a “steel-trap memory” and first-rate mind (“too clever for your own fucking good” as one character says) serve her in good stead when she arrives in the city as a despised “duster” refugee. Evar shares her determination and unwillingness to give up, but his superpower is less his mind (though he’s no dummy) and more his “niceness.” His siblings view him as the “glue” that holds them all together; without him they fear they’d have long ago driven each other crazy or killed each other. It’s impossible not to root for both individually and eventually together.
Thematically, Lawrence is exploring a lot of ground here. A partial listing of themes/subjects include: the power of stories; the nature of language, knowledge, and memory; our seemingly knee-jerk xenophobic response to “the Other” and our rationalization of such a response by dehumanizing them; our treatment of refuges (there’s that topicality); the interplay of censorship, misinformation, and disinformation/propaganda; the question of who gets access (easy and cheap) to information; the corrosive impact of a thirst for vengeance; the impact of trauma, the ease with which we weaponize seemingly every advancement in knowledge and technology, found families, knowledge versus wisdom. Like a said, a lot of ground. All of these are thoughtfully explored, and many presented as a complicated debate rather than in didactically as painfully obvious right/wrong questions. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is a work that intellectually stimulates even as things go boom or people stick the pointy ends of things into other people.
It’s also, as mentioned, a love letter to stories but not just in the abstract. Readers will find fond references to a host of authors here as either direct allusions or simply as influences/inspirations (intended or subconscious), including C.S. Lewis, Borges as noted, Lev Grossman, Tolkien, Murakami, and others. Finally, one simply can’t discuss the novel without reference to the absolutely brilliant epigrams that begin each chapter, some real, most fictional, some from Lawrence’s other books. To give just a taste, there’s one from the book Appetite for Destruction by Rose L. Axe.
Though this is the first book in a series, and clearly points to the second book, there is a sense if not of finality of resolution (at least somewhat) by the end, so while one will be eagerly awaiting that second book, there isn’t a feeling of disappointment or incompleteness at the close. Just the opposite in fact, thanks to the book’s many, many strengths: a propulsive plot, engaging characters, a thoroughly fascinating setting, intellectually stimulating debate, and moments that are greatly moving. Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the delights this novel offers. If you read, you’re bound to enjoy it. If you’re a reader, you’re bound to love it.